Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Sat, Aug. 08

BNSF Railway Special

On the highway, we watch for cargo trucks in the passing lane and keep a nerve out for any unexpected incident. It is hard the let the mind rest on the road; however, riding the rail is revelatory experience. Since 1997, Burlington Northern Santa Fe employee families have been invited to ride along to share this feeling of gliding along the wide-open scenery.

This month the BNSF is running the BNSF Railway Special for 2006. This 21-day event began in Gallup, New Mexico and continues on to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, Calif. Winslow was the second stop on this tour where BNSF employee families were invited to ride a train of passenger cars that were used by the Santa Fe in the 1950s and '60s before Amtrak became the only public transport by rail.

The BNSF Special is a 1,300-foot-long train pulled by two diesel-electric locomotives with a variety of car styles in-between, ranging from the one with an open wooden dance floor with Bose sound equipment and a bar, to the Bay View domed window lounge.

The Missouri River train car was on board for this trip too. It used to belong to Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D ­ Tex.), the first African American woman to represent a once Confederate state in Congress. Ornate wood and trim lined the walls of the car and it was decorated with art books and historical photos of the railroad and Native Americans. The Winslow Harvey Girls met here before greeting the guests on this trip.

Aaron Lakey, a BNSF manager of marketing communications based out of the Fort Worth, Tex. headquarters, also walked the train with the Harvey Girls to speak with employee and their families.

"We will have over 5,000 employees and their families on this train for this year's event," Lakey said. "This train is our way of saying thanks to those who have contributed to helping BNSF achieve our vision of providing transportation services that consistently meet our customers' expectations."

The BNSF operates one of the largest networks in North America with 33,000 miles of track that covers the West from the fields of wheat on the plains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean where they expedite cargo from China. Much of the shipments from Asia to Europe actually come through the track in Winslow known as the "Transcon," because it is the mainline route from the ports of Los Angeles to Chicago and is much quicker that other transportation infrastructures in Eurasia.

"There are about 80 to 90 trains a day coming through this corridor," Lakey said. "We are experiencing tremendous growth from imports coming in from the West Coast, rising fuel prices, truck driver shortages and the growing traffic congestion on highways."

With the rising price of fuel and since BNSF began putting their new GE diesel/electric engines on the tracks, the train has become a cheaper form of shipping for mass commodities since less fuel is used per cargo unit hauled. Additionally, only 2 employees are needed to drive a train that can be one mile long instead of one truck driver for every freight box.

The BNSF in this area is restricted from going above 70 mph, but the Amtrak can go up to 90 mph. On the northeastern corridor between Boston and Washington D.C., the trains are allowed to go up to 110 mph. The Japanese have developed magnetically driven train that can go up to 340 mph., though its cargo is a feather compared to the tens of thousands of tons that are hauled over the rails passing Winslow.

Lakey said BNSF is spending $2.5 billion this year on infrastructure and trains. One of their largest projects this year is currently being constructed at Abo Canyon, about 20 miles east of Belen, New Mex.; a turn around point for many of Winslow's BNSF employees.

"This is the largest length of single-line track on this route and it creates a bottleneck that causes delays," Lakey said.

Over 40 miles of parallel track will be laid for the Abo Canyon section and BNSF plans on finishing by 2007.

"Going from Winslow to Belen should take about 5 or 6 hours, but realistically it takes about 9 or 10 hours now due to delays," Lakey said.

It is not unusual to work-up to12-hour day while on a train, but labor law states that if doing so, the employee must rest for eight hours before going back to work and many employees are held-up in Winslow, Belen or Kingman before they are allowed to drive back.

Kevin Arnold, of Winslow, and a conductor for nine years, said that his job is great, but that safety is important. "These huge trains are unforgiving, so it is important people do not make mistakes and that we be prepared."

Arnold said the railroad is such a good job that getting in is now difficult. BNSF recently hired for enginer10 positions ­ over 6,000 applied. Of these hires, seven came from a trade school for railroaders in the Midwest, and three just came in off the street.

One these walk-in hires was a young Winslow resident named Houston Carol, grandson of Winslow Harvey Girl Marie LaMar who was also on the train greeting people.

"I have a grandson at both ends of this train," LaMar said.

Houston sent out applications all over the country when he was 17 even though you must be at least 18 to work for the railroad, and when he did become old enough they pick him up.

"Paying thousands of dollars by going to that train school is the most chicken scratch thing I ever heard of," Houston said, while some of the older railroaders in the backround rolled their eyes.

Arnold that school not being necessary is not necessarily true because it helps reinforce safety.

"I've seen a lot of things on this job and I can tell you that knowing what you are doing is important," he said.

The public needs to be aware for their own safety as well. Norma Milligan, of the Flagstaff BNSF office was dressed as a Harvey Girl to explain to the kids on the bus about being aware of trains if near the track.

In between their inclination to incessantly say,"La Po-sa-da," in varying tones, the children on the train, colored in cartoon books geared for kids about things not to do it near train tracks.

The statistics of deaths related to the train are staggering. Everyday across the country, the train kills about two pedestrians and two people in vehicles, and it is usually because of poor decision-making, said Milligan.

"It takes a train about one mile to stop. We have people who get stuck on the tracks stay in their cars because they thought the train would stop for them," she said.

If hopping trains seems cool, Milligan said that those illegal passengers may inadvertently be locked in and find their way on a slow boat to China.

For the sixth consecutive year, as part of the BNSF Railway Special, BNSF is partnering with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America by providing free, round-trip train rides for children while raising funds for the local organizations. This year the BNSF will host club members and guests from five different Boys & Girls Clubs along the three-state route, including Gallup, N.M., Phoenix, Fresno, Calif., Bakersfield, Calif., and Los Angeles.

In addition, The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Foundation has pledged donations totaling up to $75,000 this year to the five participating Boys & Girls Clubs and the national organization.

"Each year we operate the BNSF Railway Special to honor our employees and the communities where they live and work. Is always our privilege to share the excitement of the railroad, and this trip provides to those on board a glimpse of the vital role our railroad plays along this part of our network," said Richard A. Russack, vice president of Corporate Relations for BNSF.

One its first trip for Winslow, the Railway Special had 217 people go along that included four generations of Winslow residents and railroad workers.

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